Protecting the environment mostly seems to be a concern of developed countries. Why is development cooperation targeting this domain?
Actually, our partner countries are facing many challenges that are tied to environmental issues and climate change: Poor access to drinking water, to natural resources, to land and food are already leading to conflicts and migration, just like natural and climate catastrophes have. And health and waste management are also important for the development of these countries. So, environmental questions have been part of the development debate for quite some time. But instead of focusing on the environment, I would prefer talking about sustainability and combine the environmental dimension with economic aspects and social issues in each of our interventions.
The idea is that we must always broaden the framework of reflection. In Morocco, for instance, we participate in a national programme that builds sanitation blocks in rural schools. The objective is to protect the environment and improve hygiene, of course; but there is also an important social dimension: foster school attendance of young girls. Without toilets, young girls indeed tend to drop out of school at the age of puberty. This intervention aims to have a long-term effect on society. But just building sanitation blocks is not enough: All actors in the school need to be engaged in maintaining these blocks for them to remain functional over time.
You cannot put in place a lasting system unless local actors see their own interest served through the project.
So, you want to change behaviours? Isn’t that very hard to achieve?
Yes, exactly. That makes our job so challenging, the fact that managing change is so important. Think of deforestation in Africa. Its main cause is that people cut trees to get firewood or to make charcoal; in both cases this is mostly done for cooking. This is not just an environmental issue; it also is a question of public health because of particulate matter pollution inside houses.
To address this, action is required at several levels simultaneously. Upstream in the system, you can plant forests that produce better firewood and improve charcoal production techniques. To directly impact consumption you can design and promote more efficient cooking stoves. And finally, you may propose alternatives to charcoal, such as solar or gas ovens. The toughest part is to introduce such innovations in everyday life and show that they work, that the practice makes sense. Once again, this requires that you work in the field and support local communities.
You also insist on the need to obtain concrete results that can be duplicated. Why?
We must avoid spreading resources and efforts too thinly. That is why we prefer to have projects in places that we know, where we can build lasting relations of trust with local people.
Also, each initiative must target specific results and contribute to acquiring know-how that we can use in similar future projects. With a clear impact on local capacity development and employment too. To maximise the likelihood of achieving these results, we try to develop ‘niches’ in which we accumulate expertise. We have, for instance, become very efficient in water management, in rural setting as well as cities, in forest management, in support of agricultural value chains, in waste management...
But waste management is such a complex matter. Isn’t this too risky altogether?
Everything depends on how you manage the project. We do not want to install a ready-made system, but initiate and accompany lasting change processes.
For waste management this implies involving local actors who see their own interest served through the project. If small private operators get organised and source organic waste to produce potting soil and compost, whilst others gather plastic waste or paper and cardboard, the advantages are many: On one hand, waste collection is cheap, since part of sorting and processing is ‘sub-contracted’; and on the other hand, a mini-economy is created and generates jobs. So, a common good — waste management — which is not always immediately appreciated by the people is combined with individual benefits. And lasting public waste management is achieved because a community now has a direct interest in maintaining the system beyond the scope of a development cooperation intervention.
But to achieve this, you must include this idea from the start and, for instance, make sure that the land where you will build the waste management centre is close to the city, otherwise costs are up — think of the cost of fuel — and also, you might lose out on local actors. This is a lesson that we have learned ‘the hard way’, like many others.
And what do you do to make sure these experiences are not lost?
For each intervention we try to capitalise on experience and learn lessons. The goal is not to write ‘recipes’ for further use, but – because local contexts differ – we try to develop a method, a list of questions to address and understand the elements that will impact the project to thus maximise the likelihood of success. With every new project we learn new lessons so we can gradually increase the effectiveness of our interventions.